A company being launched Monday out of a Harvard University research institute will transform slivers of silicon into testing devices that simulate human organs to help speed the development of new drugs.
The silicon chips, about the size of a computer thumb drive, are designed to hold human cells and blood to allow scientists to test whether a drug is effective, for example, or whether an industrial chemical or a food additive is harmful to people.
These highly sophisticated systems are called organ-on-a-chip, and the new company, Emulate, hopes its commercial product will be used by university and research labs around the world.
“We can get a much greater insight into human biology with that; it’s going to be very exciting,” said chief executive James Coon.
The Cambridge company, a spinoff of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, has raised $12 million in venture funding to begin commercial production of the testing devices. Coon said the company is in discussions with potential customers and hopes to sign its first contract by year’s end.
The Wyss Institute is one of many academic centers working on the concept of bioemulation, or the use of machines to simulate on a small scale the functions of living organisms.
For now, Emulate is mainly focused on human lungs. The company’s bioemulation system uses silicon pieces that have a hollow channel lined with cells, through which chemicals can flow. The channel has two compartments, one with human blood or a synthetic blood substitute, the other living human cells.
The two compartments are separated by a membrane just a few hundredths of a millimeter thick. The membrane is similar to the capillaries that swap oxygen and carbon dioxide between the human bloodstream and lungs. In the same way, chemicals can move back and forth through the membrane.
The Emulate chip is attached to machinery that gently flexes it in a motion similar to breathing. This brings fresh air into contact with the lung cells, while subjecting the cells to the same stresses found in a human body. Meanwhile, blood is steadily pumped through the chip’s central channel.
“It’s really the merger, the amalgamation of engineering and biology,” Coon said.
The testing system includes a microscope attached to a video camera that allows researchers to view the lung cells; the video can be accessed through any Internet-connected computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Although Emulate focuses on lungs, the company is interested in other organs and tissues, including the liver, intestines, skin, and eyes. Coon is also eager to challenge the brain-blood barrier, the extraordinarily tough tissue that prevents most chemicals from entering the brain.
Because of this barrier, it is difficult to use drugs in the treatment of many brain disorders.
“That’s one we’re extremely excited about,” Coon said. “Right now there’s no good tools to study it.”
But if the brain-blood barrier can be recreated on a piece of silicon, scientists can safely test a limitless variety of compounds.
Support for research on simulated human organs is growing.
The US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is pouring money into the concept, including a $37 million grant to the Wyss Institute, and $32 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in 2012.
“Their goal is to develop up to 10 organs on a single chip,” said Roger Kamm, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering at MIT.
In such a system, the by-products created by each mini-organ would be pumped into the next simulated organ, in the same way that chemicals flow from a live person’s stomach to his liver, intestines, kidneys, and so on.
By monitoring the mini-organs and their chemical by-products at every stage, it might be possible to predict in detail how a drug might affect much of a person’s body.
“This is going to revolutionize how pharmaceutical companies screen for drugs,” Kamm said.
Emulate is already developing multi-organ systems, in effect, a human-body-on-a-chip.
“We can change out the cell types. We can put in additional cell types,” Coon said. “It’s a very flexible platform.”
The Emulate system could also someday enable customized cures for individual patients. Emulate chips could be infused with cells from a person’s own body, and then tested against a variety of drug treatments, in search of the best one for each patient.
“This platform is ultimately going to open the door to personalized medicine,” Coon said.